Christians and the Bible

From Soren Kierkegaard:

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

This is a quote I ran across on the blog Waving or Drowning (I love the title) years ago, though I was introduced to Soren Kierkegard even longer ago during my first year in seminary. Amazingly enough, only one of my professors opened his or her classes with a devotional reading and/or prayer. Dr. Charles Bull, who taught Christian History, was the one. During one four-class stint, Dr. Bull read from Fear and Trembling, taking as his texts the introductory passages where one man considers and interprets the story of the Akedah (Abraham’s binding of Isaac). I found these readings to be one of the most moving and formative experiences of the school year.

What I find particularly refreshing about Kierkegaard is his honesty, which can at times be brutal. As you can see from the quote above, Kierkegaard felt that most Christians only talk about their faith; they don’t, however, live it. It is said that when the bishop of his diocese of Copenhagen died, and all the newspapers spoke in glowing terms of this great Christian, Kierkegaard noted in his diary something like this: “He is dead now, and as he has been responsible for a very long period, it would have been desirable that one would have been able to convince him to end his life by giving in to Jesus Christ, and to admit that what he represented among us was not Christianity but a compromise.”

Kierkegaard went on to explain his feeling further by telling a story about geese in one of his sermons. He compared his fellow Christians to domesticated geese. These geese, he says, always talking about flying: “We have wings,” they say, “we never use our wings; we should use them, let us fly!” But nobody ever flies. And on Sundays a big goose stands a bit higher than other ones on a pulpit, and he, too, every Sunday, encourages and exhorts the others, in the most beautiful words, to fly. But nobody does fly, and if one would start to fly, the preacher would be the first one to shout, “Come down immediately!”

I guess the problem of hypocrisy has been around forever, and the idea that the followers of Jesus should actually follow Jesus is nothing new either.  As for me, I often wonder what our churches, what Christians, and what I might look like if we all took the Bible more seriously, if we all lived our faith with more conviction.  What would happen, do you think, if we more thoroughly practiced what we profess and proclaim to be true.

The Death of Jack Palance and “The One Thing”

As reported in TV Squad Jack Palance has died at the age of 87. Joel Keller of the Squad writes:

Jack Palance is one of those actors who has been around for so long and has been seen in so many varied projects, that when he dies, every type of entertainment publication feels compelled to run his obituary. Palance died today of natural causes in his California home. He was 87. Palance is probably best known for his long career playing tough-guy roles in movies like Shane and City Slickers (for which he won an Oscar and did those one-handed pushups at the ceremony). But TV fans will likely remember him as the host of the show Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which ran from 1982-1986 on ABC. God, was it creepy when he ended one of those segments about someone with two noses or some other equally freaky subject by slowly saying in his calm, low tone, “Believe it… (inhale) or not.” Gave the teenaged me the willies. But I tuned in each and every week. Gonna miss the guy.

As for me, when I lived in Tamaqua, PA, I was often told of how people would run into Palance on the streets of Hazleton, PA (about 10 miles north of Tamaqua, and supposedly his hometown). Every story spoke of how down-to-earth and friendly Palance was. I never met the man myself, but I will always think of him in connection with his role as Curly in City Slickers. In particular, I remember the conversation he had with Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, as they rode through the western countryside.

Mitch and two of his New York buddies have come to northern New Mexico to work through their mutual mid-life crises by driving cattle up to Colorado. But Curly can only shake his head at their angst. “You city folk! You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your rope,” Curly uncomprehendingly observes. “Then you think two weeks up here will straighten it out.” The horses pause beneath them. “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks Mitch.

“No, what?” Mitch asks eagerly.

“This,” Curly answers holding up one gloved index finger.

“Your finger?” Mitch asks, thrown off a little.

“One thing,” Curly answers. “It is just one thing. You stick to this and anything else don’t mean beans.”

“That’s great,” Mitch enthuses, “but what’s the one thing?”

“That is what you got to figure out,” Curly cryptically responds before
riding away.

It’s a memorable scene, and not just because it’s good filmmaking. One person has called this conversation “an ink-blot of cowboy spirituality. Curly is the Zen master of the old west. You read anything you want into it.” But this still leaves us asking, “So what is the one thing?” Is it low carbs in your diet? Is it a blockbuster Eagles or 76er or Phillies trade? Is it getting your kids into the best schools?

Just to demonstrate something that some of you already know – that my mind operates in weird ways – this scene from City Slickers reminds me of something a friend once shared with me from the 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard begins his book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing with a prayer.

“Father in heaven!
What is a man without Thee!
What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be,
but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee!
What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world,
but a half-finished work, if he does not know Thee:
Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all!
So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing;
to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding;
to the will, purity that wills only one thing.
In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing;
amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing;
in suffering, patience to will one thing.
give to the young man the resolution to will one thing.
And as the day wanes,
give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution,
that the first might be like the last, the last like the first,
in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”

I don’t know if Palance possessed “a life that willed only one thing,” but I do know that one scene in City Slickers has helped me over the years to focus on what that idea might mean for me in my life. For that, I am grateful, and I wish Mr. Palance “God Speed,” and I pray that he might find rest in the arms and love of God.